Beauty, Charm, and Strangeness: Science as Metaphor

Thanks to Nathan Yau at Flowing Data for pointing me in the direction of this 1998 essay by John Banville for Science magazine.  He draws parallels between art and science.

I wish to advance a thesis which, were they to take note of it, the academies would decry as scandalous. My thesis is that modern science, particularly physics, is being forced, under pressure of its own advances, to acknowledge that the truths it offers are true not in an absolute but in a poetic sense, that its laws are contingent, that its facts are a kind of metaphor. Of course, art and science are fundamentally different in their methods, and in their ends. The doing of science involves a level of rigor unattainable to art. A scientific hypothesis can be proven—or, perhaps more importantly, disproven—but a poem, a picture, or a piece of music, cannot. Yet in their origins art and science are remarkably similar. It was a scientist, Niels Bohr, who declared that a great truth is a statement whose opposite is also a great truth. Oscar Wilde would have agreed.

continued at Beauty, Charm, and Strangeness: Science as Metaphor.

I couldn’t agree more, this is a playlet what I wrote as part of An Experiment in Theatre, back in 2006

What is a metaphor?
Caspar 2006

A & B performing two independent, interleaved monologues

A – The electron is a metaphor.
B – Love is a metaphor.
A – There really is no such thing as an electron. Not as you or I understand it.
B – There is no one thing called love, as celebrated by playwrights and poets
A –  Even physicists use the term as an approximation, an abstraction.
B – The truth is more complicated than that, a lot more complicated.
A – Electrons appear in our measurements and our equations but we have no direct experience of them. We can’t, they’re too weird. Electrons aren’t really particles, they aren’t really waves. Their dynamics are dizzying.
B – No two people are the same. Love is an complex interaction between two complex individuals. They barely know their own minds and they can only guess what it is like for the other. And if they don’t know, what chance do we have?
A –  We have no experiences that that tells us about that type of existence. Everyday life follows different rules.
B – The best we can do is to get close. Translate everything we are told into our own private language, into our own experiences, comparing it to a memory we have or a previous story we have heard.
A – We have our models of the world and they work breathtakingly well.
B – Some things resonate so clearly that we know that it must be similar for others.
A – Yet they are metaphors for a phenomenon too complex to hold in our heads.
B – I bet Shakespeare based Juliet on some schoolyard crush.
A – I’m sure Stephen Hawking often thinks of tiny billiard balls pinging around in space.


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